Mircea Eliade, “The Sacred and the Profane”

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. (orig. 1957, my edition 1987)

David Morgan and I recently had occasion to talk about Eliade. It was not so long ago, he recalled, that practically everybody in our discipline cited Eliade favorably. Morgan remembered hundreds of people filling Rockefeller Chapel for Eliade’s funeral in 1986. Eliade inaugurated a “comparative moment” in the study of religion, a time when people set the “essences” and “spirits” of religions against each other—ostensibly without hierarchy. Though such projects now seem hopelessly misguided, one might argue that the field of religious studies today owes more to Eliade than any other figure. Before him, the likes of Durkheim, Tylor, Müller, even Freud, took interest in the category of religion as an aspect of social, psychological, or literary life—after him, the study of religion seemed to acquire a new level of academic legitimacy in its own right. When J.Z. Smith first published his devastating critiques of Eliade, Morgan reminded me, he was an untenured newcomer. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Eliade’s title The Sacred and the Profane (originally published in German as Das Heilige und das Profane)riffs on Rudolph Otto’s Das Heilige. For Otto, the the holy is the numinous, das ganz Andere (the wholly Other). Eliade picks up the concept of The sacred and defines it as “the opposite of the profane” (10). In other words, the world is profane until the sacred makes it qualitatively otherwise. The sacred “irrupts” into the profane world with a hierophany: “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (11). This means that human beings experience two “modes of being” in the world: the sacred and the profane (14). The sacred is that of order, being, and absolute reality, the profane of chaos, non-being, and, ultimately, death. Homo religiosus, the religious person (everyone except a handful of radical moderns, according to Eliade), desires to live in the sacred at all times. Thus, the site of the hierophany becomes the fixed central point of reality, the axis mundi (37). It founds and orders the world (21-23). It structures space (32) and time (89), generating appropriate models of conduct in myths. Because humans experience both the sacred and the profane in everyday life, the liminal zones between them become especially charged. Much of Eliade’s analysis focuses on things like thresholds (between inside and outside), mountains (between earth and sky), bridges, rites of passage, etc.

All this talk of experience and ontology got me thinking… I am admittedly weak on the finer points of existentialism (and I welcome correction), but it seems to me that it is difficult to appreciate Eliade’s text today without putting it in dialogue with thinkers like Sartre and Camus. In Eliade, humanity finds itself caught in the dilemma of existence, trapped between being and non-being. But instead of having to grasp the absurdity of his existence head-on, Eliade’s homo religiosus finds the solution to the existential crisis in religion. Even “the most elementary religion,” claims Eliade, “is, above all, an ontology” (210). Religion offers access to the sacred, the center of being, the fixed point from which the world makes sense. His comments near the end of the book read like a jab at the atheist existentialists, who refuse to recognize that, at least at the level of the (collective) unconscious, religion still operates in modern life (see 210-211). Those who deny the sacred any role in the world, Eliade contends, have simply “forgotten” it by pushing it deep into “the depths of the unconscious” (213).

Review by A.T. Coates